Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona, on April 22, 1922. When he was three months old he moved to Watts and spent his childhood there. His two sisters studied piano and violin; his stepbrother was a guitarist and Mingus’s interest in music was possibly sparked by this.
Mingus’s first instrument was the trombone (a gift when he was six) which he studied with his sister. Later he met and studied with Britt Woodman, the trombonist who was to be a star in the Ellington band in later years.
After studying the trombone for four years, Mingus gave it up in favor of the cello which he then played in the Watts school band and in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic. At Jordan High School he played cello in the band which included both Chico Hamilton and Buddy Collette (now famous as jazz musicians in their own right) as well as Woodman.
Mingus began playing dances and house parties when he was eleven, working with Buddy Collette’s band and again he changed instruments, this time taking up double bass. When he was sixteen, Mingus studied bass under Callender, then as now one of the leading bassists in jazz. Later he also studied under H. Rheinschager of the New York Philharmonic.
Mingus started his professional career in the music world in 1940 working with Lee Young, the drumming brother of tenor saxophonist Lester Young. He then played with Louis Armstrong’s big band of the early 40s and with Kid Ory and Alvino Rey. In 1946, he rejoined Buddy Collette in the Stars of Swing, a Los Angeles group which included Britt Woodman, tenor Lucky Thompson, trumpeter John Anderson, pianist Spaulding Givens, and drummer Oscar Bradley, all well-known jazz players today.
Later in 1946, Mingus joined Lionel Hampton’s big band where he was featured through 1948 and where he recorded his own composition, "Mingus Fingers.” His reputation by now had spread out into the jazz audience. During 1950 and 1951, as bassist with the Red Norvo Trio, Mingus recorded and played in clubs and concerts and established himself as one of the premier bassists in music.
In 1951 Mingus moved to New York but was unable at first to find work in music and so took a job in the Post Office. During 1952-53 he worked with Stan Getz, Billy Taylor, and the great Charlie Parker, as well as with both Bud Powell and Art Tatum. For a time Mingus played in the Duke Ellington orchestra as well.
In 1952 Mingus formed his own record company, Debut, which produced some historic records. During the summer of 1953 he formed the Jazz Workshop and gave a series of concerts which were recorded by Debut. The purpose of the Jazz Workshop was to give musicians the opportunity to exchange ideas and play compositions by themselves and with other, unknown, young musicians.
Mingus’s own ability as a composer is particularly evident in his writing in the post-1956 era, especially in “Revelations,” which he wrote for the 4th Festival of the Arts at Brandeis University in 1957 and of which only the first movement has been recorded.
Among his other outstanding compositions are “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” “Half-Mast Inhibitions,” and “Ecclesiastes.”
Mingus has mainly worked with small groups in which he has encouraged his sidemen to become outstanding musicians in their own right. Such alumni include Eric Dolphy, John Handy, Booker Ervin, and Ted Curson. From time to time he formed big bands but these have mainly been for recording.
Mingus has also appeared in several films including The Road to Zanzibar, Higher and Higher, and All Night Long as well as in numerous concerts in the United States and Europe.
He also composed the music for the award-winning film Shadows directed by John Cassavetes. In 1964, Mingus reformed his own company to Charles Mingus Enterprises, and recorded new albums under the Jazz Workshop label.
In 1968 Mingus appointed Saul Zaentz of Fantasy Records to distribute his Jazz Workshop series on the Fantasy label. Released so far are Mingus at Monterey and My Favorite Quintet. Town Hall Concert was released in the spring of 1971.
Charles Mingus died January 5, 1979.